The Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street”

Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street" album cover

Each week, I listen to a great album for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. This week’s album has been The Rolling Stones’ 1972 double-LP album “Exile on Main Street”. I already love this album and I have definitely enjoyed a full week of giving it a close listen. I actually only started listening to the Stones about 15 years ago. They were one of the favorite bands of my girlfriend’s father, which prompted me to give them a real listen. Some years passed before I heard “Exile on Main Street”, but it grew on me very quickly.

The blood of Rock ‘n’ roll runs through the heart of this album. Chuck Berry gets cited often by Keith Richards as one of his primary influences. Berry’s songs like “Little Queenie” impressed him by how loose the skillfully played music was. That quality is very present throughout “Exile on Main Street”. Everybody is playing this finely crafted songs together where everything sounds right, rolling with loose execution. The performance swings with a human spirit that sounds so natural and skillful. The lesson here really is to know your instrument, know your parts, and play it with soul.

The rocker “Rocks Off” opens the album with a lone guitar riff, joined by drums, and another guitar, bass and restrained slurred vocals. A few more bars, and piano joins with the vocals picking up in energy. I love the glissando fanfare on the horns in the chorus that act as an extension of the vocals. Like several songs on “Exile”, “Rocks Off” musically starts off as a basic rocker and grows into a party. As mentioned earlier, the song is loose.. but it seems like everybody is playing to catch up with everybody else, as if the energy of the song itself just might outrun the band.

The kick drum often hits on the beat, as well as a eight-note before the beat. This type of kick drum pattern lends bossa-nova rhythms their shuffle, and has the same effect here. Several parts of the song build up intensity and tension; Individual parts seem they are about to lose relationship with each other. This tension is released by the introduction of a section with all parts coming back together, often with backing and lead vocals joining together. This technique is used on several of the songs to great effect.

Something similar happens in my favorite track, “Let It Loose“. The song hints at a chorus through verses and bridge, but it isn’t until 3:53 mark that the backing vocals begin to sing the “Let it loose” chorus. Even then, the lead singer Mick continues to sing for 20 seconds before joining in the chorus himself and the song ends shortly after. This is one of the reasons I love the song. Up until the one and only chorus, the structure of the song feels tenuous. It begins to dissipate a few times, but the lead vocals bring it back on track. Even then, the loosely sung vocals are like a rambling gospel blues seeking structure. There are at times whispered and slurred and other times a soulful raspy holler. I also love the watery picked guitar line, an effect achieved either with tremolo or a rotating speaker. The chord progression is essentially a I-IV-V, one of the most common chord progressions in rock music. According to online sources, it’s I-I7-IV-I7-V-V7.. with some ii in there.

For me, “Shine a Light” shares musical ideas with “Let It Loose”, but with a more common song structure of Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Outro. A brilliant breakdown separates the bridge and the final chorus, which provides rest while allowing that final chorus to come back with more energy. Both songs have great lyrics with visual imagery painting a surreal emotional picture.

“I Just Want to See His Face” features the band recorded as if they are playing down the hall and we happen to be in the house. It’s not a particularly engaging song on its own, so I’m assuming this treatment allows the song to act as a transition between tracks. Whatever the reason, it does cause it to stand out oddly in a quiet way. An interesting choice for the middle of a great rock ‘n’ roll album that otherwise puts the listener in the room with the band rocking out.